Confidence is a funny thing. It’s a virtue that I lack in most areas, such as solving math problems or giving a good back rub. However, from time to time, I’ll find myself exceptionally confident about something that I have no logical reason to feel confident about. The most recent example of this has to do with mountain climbing. Specifically I’m talking about climbing Hallasan, a shield volcano that, at 1,950 meters tall, is the highest peak in all of South Korea.
Hallasan – or Mt. Halla – is located in the center of Jeju Island, which is mostly known for being a big honeymoon destination for Koreans. It was also recently named one of the seven ‘New Natural Wonders of the World.’ Since I was on vacation from work, I thought I’d take a short trip there with my girlfriend. After conducting some research (i.e. Googling ‘what to do in Jeju’), I learned that one could hike to the top of Mt. Halla, where there is a big volcanic crater.
“Cool,” I thought. “We’ll do that.”
I mean, nothing says ‘romantic getaway’ like walking up a 9.6 km/6 mile trail to the top of a volcano, right?
My girlfriend didn’t bat an eye at the suggestion and was so confident about it, she initially planned to do it in flip-flops. “Are you sure you can hike up a mountain in flip-flops?” I asked her, skeptically.
“Sure,” she said. “These are very comfortable.”
I told her to pack a pair of sneakers just in case. This would turn out to be the best advice I’ve ever given someone, narrowly beating out the time I told one of my kindergarten students not to eat crayons.
In due time, the big day came. As I alluded to earlier, one has to trek up a 9.6 km trail in order to reach the summit of Mt. Halla. This is such a time consuming task that the final stretch to the summit is closed off at noon, due to fears that people will get stuck on the mountainside past nightfall if it was open later. For that reason, we left our hostel at 4:30 AM and reached the mountain just as the sun was coming up. True, getting up early sucks, but it’s nothing compared to having to sleep on the side of a mountain with a big jagged rock for a pillow. Knowing how inexperienced and, frankly, nonathletic we are, we thought it best to get going as early as possible and so, at exactly 5:20 AM we were off, headed up the trail at the speed of lightweights.
This is basically what you walk up. It alternates though, between stone steps, rocks, and finally a sweet wooden staircase that appears to go up and up forever.
If you look closely, you can spot my girlfriend basically collapsed on the stairs there (note the sneakers). Perhaps it was for the best that I didn’t read a lot about going up the mountain during that preparation period. If I had, I might have realized something I otherwise neglected: it’s actually rather difficult to climb a mountain. Had I have known that, maybe we would’ve gone to the beach instead. Going up took 4 hours. It was not fun. Others on the path were decked out in sleek hiking gear, with walking poles to help them and backpacks full of water and food. We brought basically nothing, just a couple bottles of water which I carried in the plastic bag from the 7-11. Hiking gear? None. Shorts and sneakers all the way. There was a point somewhere on the wooden staircase when making it to the summit was in doubt, but we had begun with confidence and that would not fade (until the way down, at least), and finally we achieved our goal and made it to the wonderful, glorious, breathtaking spot I like to call the tippy top.
We hung out at the summit for about 15 minutes, breathing in the fresh air of accomplishment, and then embarked on the nightmarish descent. Every step down felt like I was getting hit in the knee by a shopping cart, making me wince in pain and cursing the mountain. “Damn you Hallasan!” It actually took longer to go down than it did going up – 5 hours down – and the effects lasted for about a week. Encountering a standard stairwell in the subway, for instance, brought the fear of God into my heart. My body ached too much to go down it. I looked and felt like a 90 year old man inching my way to the bottom. It was as though I had somehow left my youth and my calf muscles up on the mountain somewhere.
A little soreness is just a minor detail, though. This adventure post is not about climbing mountains or being physically fit. It’s about having the confidence to do something and then doing it. No, it wasn’t fun and it certainly wasn’t well researched, but I believed that I could go up a mountain and I did. I even remembered to take a camera so that I could supply myself with photographic evidence. Here I am, standing by the plaque at the top of the mountain. Do I look confident? No – it had been drained out of me at that point. It didn’t matter though. I’d made it, ma, top of the world.
And I’d never, ever do it again.